Can Colleges Reach Beyond Campus to Foster ‘Digital Equity’ in Communities? – EdSurge News

Two Historically Black Colleges and Universities are located in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Unsurprisingly, these institutions–Claflin University and South Carolina State University–make the internet available to their students and faculty. The latter institution actually installed , a brand new, extremely fast system earlier in the year.

High-speed internet access is difficult to find in the vicinity of campus. It is also expensive in areas where Census show that the median household income in the county is $36,802 and that the poverty rate in the area is 19 percent.

His organization has partnered with Claflin University and the city of Orangeburg to expand the university’s broadband into the community at affordable rates. It’s possible that this strategy could also work elsewhere in the country because research by McKinsey shows that more than 80 per cent of HBCUs reside in “broadband deserts”.

Ben-Avie stated that HBCUs, as well as other institutions serving minorities, are “really interesting and powerful partners in bridging digital divide.”

The Orangeburg approach shows how higher education can help to connect millions of people from all income levels to the internet. This is a role that advocates call “digital equity“. Ben-Avie and other panelists urged college and university leaders to embrace their institution’s identities as “anchors” within their communities and regions to help overcome the digital divide.

This idea has received more attention from higher education since the pandemic-era disaster of remote learning highlighted students’ inequal access internet and computers. Researchers and leaders from non-profits and the government are urging colleges to think beyond their students and consider how they can make a difference on campus.

“Widespread broadband adoption leads to greater prosperity in communities,” stated Karen Mossberger, coauthor of the book “Choosing The Future: Technology and Opportunities in Communities.” Research has shown that it has spillover benefits for society, just like education.

Beyond Wi-Fi

Colleges may be interested in getting involved with digital equity efforts because there is an influx of federal dollars available to fund relevant programs through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. While some of the federal money will go to state-led initiatives, other amounts will be available for college applicants.

Higher ed institutions should consider how they can tap into all these funding streams and collaborate in education, research, outreach and workforce-development efforts, said Angela Thi Bennett, digital equity director for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

She explained that higher education is a great place to be because it trains the workforce. “You are the foundation for all occupations, from our technical colleges to community colleges to HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.”

Panelists suggested that higher education should go beyond providing Wi-Fi and devices for students. It is also important to reduce technology costs and teach people technical skills.

Ben-Avie stated that digital equity does not only concern infrastructure. However, it can often begin there. There is a huge gap between adoption and availability, and affordability is one of the most important, if certainly the single, factors. Accessing the internet is not enough if you don’t have the means to pay for it.

Colleges can do much more than simply share their internet. Mossberger suggested that this could include encouraging faculty to use their research skills to evaluate digital outreach programs and access programs or working with students to host listening events with local residents to document their digital needs.

Arizona State University, where she is a professor and director for the Center on Technology, Data and Society, actively participates with county officials in running relevant, region-specific digital equity programs.

Mossberger stated that small, local governments have difficulty with this even though they are willing to do so and there is sometimes the greatest need there.” So colleges and universities can, I believe, really help those communities.


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